The unique, shortened nature of the 2020 MLB season meant there were several notable players who didn’t get much of a chance to make an impact due to injury, illness, COVID-19 opt-out or other special circumstances. With Spring Training now underway, let’s take a look at 10 potentially high-impact players who are looking to pick up where they left off — or perhaps even improve — after extended time off from major league action.
One note before we get going: key players not expected to return until at least a few months into the 2021 season — such as Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard and Luis Severino — are not included for the purposes of this list, but certainly could have a significant impact for their teams in the second half of the season if healthy.
1) David Price, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Price is listed by Roster Resource as the Dodgers’ No. 5 starter, a testament to the team’s talent and depth and the position. Acquired from Boston in the Mookie Betts trade, the 35-year-old has yet to pitch for the Dodgers as he opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. Price wasn’t great in his final season with the Red Sox and has battled injuries in recent years, but he’s still posted a 3.84 ERA, 3.74 FIP and 46-24 record since the start of 2016 while averaging roughly 150 innings per season. If he’s able to stay healthy and return to anything close to his previous form, the Dodgers will have a No. 2-level starter behind its trio of aces.
2) Corey Kluber, SP, New York Yankees
The two-time Cy Young Award winner is looking to bounce back with the Yankees after throwing just 36 ⅔ innings over the last two seasons due to injury. The now-34-year-old fractured his arm after being hit by a line drive in 2019 and threw just one inning in 2020 before being diagnosed with a torn muscle in his throwing shoulder. Prior to the injuries, ‘Klubot’ was still pitching at an exceptionally high level, finishing third in AL Cy Young balloting in 2018 while leading the league in innings pitched. Health is the big x-factor for Kluber, but the $11 million, one-year contract he signed with the Yankees could prove to be a great deal if he can prove to be a strong No. 2 option behind Gerrit Cole.
3) Jameson Taillon, SP, New York Yankees
The Yankees took the high-risk, high-reward route with additions to their rotation this winter, electing not to bring back Masahiro Tanaka while signing Kluber and trading for Taillon. Drafted second overall by the Pirates back in 2010, Taillon has shown ace upside but battled arm injuries and also missed time in 2017 due to a cancer diagnosis. The 29-year-old is coming off a second Tommy John surgery, which leaves some uncertainty, but he appears to be back to full strength at this point. With another health-provided caveat, Taillon should be at least a mid-level starter with the upside for much more in the Bronx.
4) Yordan Álvarez, DH, Houston Astros
Álvarez took MLB by storm in 2019, homering four times in his first five major league games and winning AL Rookie of the Year after slashing an absurd .313/.412/.655 with 27 homers in just 87 games. After sitting out the beginning of the 2020 season following a COVID-19 diagnosis, Álvarez returned in August, playing just two games before undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees. That’s surely not an easy situation to return from at 100%, but early Spring Training reviews of Álvarez are positive, and with George Springer now a Toronto Blue Jay, the Astros are surely hoping the 23-year-old can once again be a major force in the middle of their lineup. Many projection systems peg him for 30+ homers and a plus batting average.
5) Carlos Martinez, P, St. Louis Cardinals
Given recent injuries and poor performance, it may be easy to forget how good Martinez was just a few seasons ago. From 2015-18, the right-hander posted a 3.22 ERA and 3.58 FIP while averaging nearly 30 starts per season. After returning from an injury, Martinez served in a high-leverage relief role in 2019, tallying 24 saves. His 9.90 ERA in 20 innings last season was ugly, but Martinez dealt with COVID-19 early in the season and recently said he was never 100 percent after the diagnosis. Martinez is still just 29 years old and could regain his previous form if given a shot to return to the rotation.
6) Trey Mancini, 1B, Baltimore Orioles
Mancini missed the 2020 season as he underwent treatment for colon cancer, but fortunately is doing well now and is expected to be good to go for the upcoming campaign. The soon-to-be 29-year-old has emerged as a leader for the O’s and broke out at the plate in 2019, hitting .291 with 35 homers, 38 doubles and 97 RBI. His 2021 production isn’t likely to have much impact on Baltimore’s overall season outlook, but he certainly showed star potential before missing last season and is certainly someone to root for.
7) Eduardo Rodriguez, SP, Boston Red Sox
‘E-Rod’ was considered by many an emerging ace entering the 2020 season after finishing sixth in AL Cy Young balloting in 2019 with a 19-6 record, 3.81 ERA and 213 strikeouts in just over 200 frames. Following a bout with COVID-19 last summer, he was diagnosed with myocarditis, a heart condition, and was struggling just to walk at one point. Thankfully Rodriguez has since recovered and recently said he feels “100 percent” heading into the upcoming season. Boston’s rotation was one of the worst in baseball in 2020 and with Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery) not expected back until a few months into the season, the club would certainly benefit from Rodriguez as a high-end, stabilizing force.
8) Lorenzo Cain, CF, Milwaukee Brewers
It may seem hard to believe, but Cain is just a few seasons removed from finishing seventh in NL MVP voting in 2018. The center fielder took a step back at the plate in 2019 but did win his first Gold Glove. After playing five games in 2020, Cain elected to opt out of the remainder of the season due to COVID-19. The Brewers lineup struggled mightily, finishing bottom five in the majors in batting average, and while the addition of Kolten Wong and several likely bouncebacks should help, Cain providing some sort of spark near the top of the batting order would certainly go a long way for a team that while not a clear contender still has the chance to compete for a playoff spot.
9) Mitch Haniger, RF, Seattle Mariners
Haniger hasn’t played in an MLB game since June 2019, but the last (and only) full season he played in the majors was quite impressive, as the outfielder hit .285/.366/.493 with 26 homers, 38 doubles, 93 RBI and eight steals in 2018, finishing just outside the top 10 in AL MVP voting. He’s dealt with a myriad of injuries and required several surgeries in recent years, but Haniger has been cleared for all activities in Spring Training and could prove he should be a part of Seattle’s long-term plans with a strong showing.
10) Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals
Strasburg had one of the best seasons of his career in 2019, pitching to an 18-6 record and 3.32 ERA in 209 regular season innings and helping power the Nationals on their historic World Series run. In 2020, numbness that started in his right thumb spread to his entire hand, and after throwing just five innings, Strasburg ended up undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. The veteran right-hander, who’s surpassed 180 innings pitched just once since the start of 2015, now says he’s back to normal. If no side effects pop up in the coming weeks and months, the 32-year-old should have a good shot at picking up where he left off.
Photo by Ken Lund / Flickr